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Do you know the lonely one?

The front page story yesterday about how loneliness is “lethal” would lead you to think that we just discovered it. The fact is that scientists have known for some time that loneliness and social isolation put people at higher risk for heart attacks, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions. What’s new in the past couple of months is that studies of the genome are yielding information on the specific mechanisms that make it happen.

Because social cohesiveness and cooperation were vitally important in early human history, the brain is rigged to see a lack of strong ties as a signal of danger. Just like any other kind of stressor, that signal puts the body on the alert, even down to the cellular level. In studies of both humans and macaque monkeys, researchers have discovered that social isolation leads to specific genetic changes that turn up inflammatory processes in the body and turn down the production of antibodies against viruses and other pathogens. These genomic adaptations are linked to human evolution, designed for our survival, and are closely related to the body’s stress response.

This heightened fight-or-flight response, activated on a chronic basis, results in increased inflammation and a reduced immune response, leading to significant long-term damage. The mechanism is observed in both directions: a change in gene expression predicts future loneliness, and loneliness predicts future gene expression. In older adults, perceived loneliness leads to an increase of 14% in premature deaths.

Sydney_142It’s worth mentioning that loneliness is not the same as being alone. What matters is whether someone feels connected, and feels satisfied with the connections he or she has. Plenty of people (myself included) relish some solitude on a pretty frequent basis, but that doesn’t equate to loneliness or isolation.

While we often focus on the elderly being socially isolated, loneliness can strike anyone, from the bullied schoolchild to the working adult with social anxiety. In the book “Fear”, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about original fear and original desire. He says original fear started at birth when we were pushed, helpless, out into the world, unsure whether anyone would take care of us. That fear “was born along with the desire to survive. This is original desire.” Original fear and original desire stay with us as we grow, especially the fear that no one will love and care for us. To me, loneliness is one manifestation of that fear.

You may be reading this and thinking, “I’m not lonely – I don’t need to worry about this.” There’s a bigger picture, however, that might concern you. Analysis of social networks by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler has shown that loneliness (like obesity, quitting smoking and other habits and trends) is contagious. So the more time that people in your social network, even those on the fringes of it, spend feeling isolated, the more likely it is to spread to others in the network. Over time, there’s a possibility that more of us start experiencing those feelings.

In a world where connection is constant, but often feels unsatisfying, how can we feel less lonely? How can we help others who are lonely? Forced togetherness is not the answer. Interestingly, some research has shown that a mindfulness based stress reduction program is more successful than social networking or community programs are at reducing feelings of loneliness in the elderly. MBSR has also been shown to turn down the pro-inflammatory processes in the body. The focus on present moment may be guiding attention away from the fear of being alone.

Christakis has said that when you help “the people on the margins of the network, you help not only them but help stabilize the whole network.” It would be wise to consider how we can do more to reach those people and offer them positive social connections. Maybe we can light up the network with love rather than fear.Lights

Debbie Ford wrote that “New Year’s resolutions often fail because toxic emotions and experiences from our past can sabotage us or keep us stuck with the same old thoughts, patterns and regrets.” It can be scary to look closely at ourselves, to acknowledge some of our fears and emotions. That’s why having a plan for dealing with those negative voices boosts the staying power of your resolutions. Here’s part 2 of stress management as a foundation for resolutions:

Live purposefully — What drives you? What are you passionate about? When you combine  your values with the gifts and strengths you offer to others, that synergy helps you feel engaged, connected, and part of something larger than yourself. If, as Sean Johnson suggests, you ask yourself every day, “What is worth my time, attention, prana, love?”, and then follow that path, your actions will bring you an authentic feeling of happiness, rather than anxiety.

Move more — This advice doesn’t have anything to do with a resolution you might have about exercising more. This is movement for the joy of motion. Just move more, even when you don’t exercise. Walk somewhere that you usually drive – you’ll notice different things! Dance when you’re cleaning the house. Go ice-skating. Take the stairs instead of the elevator at least once a day. Movement is what our bodies crave when we are overloaded with the products of stress. It just feels good to move, so do it!Skaters

Practice compassion — starting with yourself! This is probably the most helpful thing you can do for yourself if you are trying to stick to resolutions. Don’t beat yourself up when things aren’t going as planned. Observe your own struggles, and those of others, with compassion. Try this meditation from Jack Kornfeld: “May I be held in compassion. May I be free from pain and sorrow. May I be at peace.” After you have directed these thoughts toward yourself for a while, turn them to others you know.

Learn something new everyday — Knowledge is power. Are you trying to have a healthier diet? Instead of following the latest fads, read some reputable nutrition literature and educate yourself in a way that will make your actions more successful. Try a different source for the news of the day to get another perspective. Read a book about something you know nothing about — it may be a great distraction from the focusing obsessively on what you are trying to change.Laughing woman

Laugh – then laugh again, and again. The other day I found a little collection of comic strips that I’ve cut out of newspapers. Even though I’ve read them many times, they still make me laugh every time I see them. We laugh for all sorts of reasons – sometimes it’s because things are genuinely funny, other times we laugh because a situation is so absurd, often we laugh just so we don’t cry. Like movement, laughter helps us rid the body of stress hormones. It also helps shift perspective, realize that we are not alone, and take the mind off of problems. Remember that your resolutions are supposed to make your life better, so don’t take them so seriously – resolve to laugh more in 2016!

So we’re eleven days in to 2016, and the tension might be starting to mount. Will it be the fresh start or the old ways that win out? Just how stressed are you about your new year’s resolutions? Are you wondering why a promise to yourself might be harder to keep than one you make to someone else?

If you’re having trouble, take heart. You’re not alone and there’s still a way to salvage your resolutions for 2016. But change is hard, and stress is a given as we fight against those entrenched habits of mind and body that just want to maintain the status quo. Dealing with the stress of change has to be the underpinning of the other resolutions.

Sydney_69

To help you out, I’ve adapted my top ten stress management tips to relate them to your new year’s resolutions and goals. I’ll share the first five here, and the others next week:

Know what you value — We all have core values, which may include things like health, family, religion or money; and then satellite values that we feel less strongly about. How are those values playing out in the resolutions you’ve made? If your core value is good health, for instance, and appearance is more of a satellite value, then maybe your weight loss resolutions need to be tweaked. Rather than setting a specific weight loss goal so that you can fit into a certain size, a health goal of consuming less sugar might be more aligned with your values.

Nurture your relationships — The support of the people around us can play a major role in the success or failure of our resolutions. How strong are your relationships with the people in your social network? Are there things that need repair in some of your friendships? Have you been supportive of other people’s goals? Think about how turning your attention to someone near you might provide emotional support to you both.

Practice gratitude — When we hit a roadblock, or cheat on a diet, or fall off the wagon, it’s easy to start berating ourselves and feel like we’ve failed. Use those moments to practice gratitude instead. Be thankful that you had five good days of healthy eating before something tempted you. Express gratitude for the sunny day that will allow you to get out and exercise, even if you didn’t yesterday. Say thank you to the employer who is paying for your smoking-cessation program.

Be present — Slowing down and paying more attention in each moment can make us more aware of the choices that precede our actions. When we’re trying to make “better” choices or break “bad” habits, mindfulness makes the choices more conscious, less rote. For instance, when you’re eating, just eat — don’t work, drive or watch TV at the same time. Sit down and look at the food, smell the food, notice the colors, before the first bite goes in your mouth. When we choose food deliberately, eat slowly, and savor each bite, we can feel more satisfied with less, because we have been fully engaged in the process of eating.

Don’t forget to breathe — Breathing mindfully can focus attention in a way that may clarify your resolutions for you. Thich Nhat Hanh has a breath exercise he suggests for bringing the mind back to the body. While slowly breathing in and out, you say “Breathing in, I’m aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I’m aware of my whole body.” If you’ve been living too much in your head, and neglecting your health, this can be a way of turning your attention back where it’s needed, while letting go of any tension that might have built up.

Wayne Dyer says that our intentions create our reality. It’s my hope that these five ways of bringing more intention to your resolutions will help make them your reality.

Out of the holidays, a home

When you think of New York City’s Rockefeller Center at this time of the year, their famous Christmas tree probably comes to mind. It could easily be the most visible holiday tree in the world, because of its size (often close to 100 feet tall), its prominent role in many holiday movies, its presence in New York, and its annual lighting featured on live TV. But its most important role comes after the holidays, when it helps provide affordable housing for one lucky family each year.

Perhaps you’ve heard this story before, but it’s new to me. Every year for the past 9 years, the company who owns Rockefeller Center has donated the lumber from the Christmas tree to Habitat for Humanity for use in building a home. The lumber is marked with the year and “Rockefeller Center tree”. In addition, the company’s employees volunteer their time to work on the build, along with the family who will live in the home, transforming the Christmas tree into a safe and solid shelter. When these families celebrate their own holidays, in new homes far from New York City, they are surrounded by that glorious tree.

Habitat for Humanity estimates that one in four people worldwide lives in poverty housing. For almost 40 years, they have been building, rehabbing and repairing homes for people in need around the world. With the help of 2 million volunteers each year, they have served 6.8 million people in that time period, offering them hope and a chance for stability.

A lack of affordable housing affects people of all ages and races. The MacArthur Foundation is funding $25 million in research to determine what the impacts are, and how best to address the need. Their premise is that “affordable housing may be a ‘platform’ that promotes positive outcomes in education, employment, and physical and mental health…” In other words, if we address the housing issue first, other things may fall into place.

The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard once wrote, “If I were to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”

So how does a Christmas tree live forever?  When it becomes a home, the platform on which dreams are built.

Wishing you peaceful dreams for the new year…

Parenting, for all its joys (and they are abundant) is an endeavor fraught with the potential for second-guessing. When children are young, we ask, “Am I a good enough parent? Will I screw it up? Do I do too much for them, or am I doing too little? Am I too tough, or am I not tough enough?” Later, when they’re all grown up, the refrain becomes, “Should I have done things differently? Would he be happier if I had done X, would she have an easier time if I had done Y?”

 

You begin your life as a parent fooled by the child’s complete dependency into thinking that you are in control; in reality, almost nothing is in your control. Andrew Solomon, in his book “Far From the Tree” says that we think we are reproducing – making a newer, better version of ourselves – when, in fact, we really are producing someone completely different, whose life story is her own to realize.

 

Solomon’s book focuses on families whose children have what he calls “horizontal” identities, which sometimes become more important for them than the “vertical” identity of the family. In chapters covering children who are deaf, who have Down’s syndrome, autism or dwarfism, for example, he writes about how, for them, the community of people who share their deaf or autistic identity might be more comfortable or necessary than that of the family. He shares the experiences of dozens of parents who have had to completely change their expectations of what their child would be like.

 

While Solomon writes that many parents “are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs,” we don’t have to be talking about very extreme instances of disability or difference to know what he means.  Those parents just realize sooner than the rest of us how little control they have over the outcome of their child’s story. The beauty of life is that each of us is a unique individual, but that can make us feel like mysteries to each other sometimes, or as Solomon says, “Parenthood catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger.” Instead of trying to make the stranger into a copy of ourselves, we need to be brave enough to accept the child as he is.SF trip.Monterey_26

 

When I was growing up, especially as an adolescent, I didn’t think my parents could see me for who I was at all. I chafed under the strictures of the family, craved independence, felt that I belonged someplace else. During my teens and twenties, I would get irritated when I would hear my mother talking to someone about me, partly because she would sooner brag about me than praise me to my face, and partly because she would invariably get some detail of the story wrong. I moved to San Francisco when I was eighteen, where at the time, the local radio station would sign off from the news by saying, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own!” That slogan seemed to perfectly convey my own mindset: “Yes, I will write my own story, and it will not be anything like my parents’ story.”

 

Fast forward to the present. Now I’m not just a daughter and sister, but also a wife and mother. Yes, I have my own story, but I realize that it is inextricably interwoven with the versions other people tell. I can’t ask my mother to get my story right, or not to tell it, because she has her part in it, just as I have my part in my kids’ stories. I try not to cast myself as the hero or the villain of their stories — all I can do now is give them the love and freedom to tell their own version.

 

I’ve discovered that I can live with the stories as they tell them. When my daughter calls on our anniversary and says, “Thank you for getting married,” or my son acknowledges how much of an influence his father is on him, it tells me that they are comfortable with the identity they got from us, even as they so beautifully establish their own.

Meet the beautiful people

So I’ll confess – I’m kind of addicted to Doctor Radio on Sirius XM. The satellite radio show from the NYU medical center features programs dedicated to different medical specialties, with opportunities for calling in and talking to medical experts. But there are two programs that I don’t listen to – the plastic surgery show, and often the dermatology show – because they make me start obsessing too much about my appearance.

Screenshot 2015-11-19Recently, however, I did listen to a dermatology program because the topic was about beauty and our perception of it. One of the guests had done research using before and after photos of facial rejuvenation patients, to see if people rated the faces differently on a list of perceived personality traits. Basically, the question was, what do others think your face says about you? That discussion led to talk of other research showing that people who exhibit positive traits, such as honesty and helpfulness, are perceived as better looking. People who are smiling are perceived as more attractive than people who have neutral expressions.

It’s not news that our expressions and behaviors affect people’s perceptions and judgments. But have you thought about them as what makes you beautiful to someone else? One of the themes of the show was about investment in beauty, not by having plastic surgery or buying cosmetics, but by thinking about what’s shining out of us. Do you smile? Are you kind? Do you look people in the eye? Are you healthy and rested and compassionate?

After listening to the program, I started thinking about some of the truly beautiful people I know, and what makes them beautiful. There’s my sister-in-law, who is unfailingly encouraging and hopeful, with a wonderful, infectious laugh. There’s the friend I met at yoga class a few years ago, who chatted with and befriended literally every person who walked through the doors of the yoga studio. There’s my son’s childhood friend, who never wavered from being kind, even in adolescence when most kids are jerks at least some of the time. There’s my sister’s husband, who will help anyone with anything, at any time; whenever he comes to visit, he fixes something in my house or brings me something he thinks I need. There’s my painter, who had a casual conversation with my neighbor months ago about something that wasn’t working in her apartment; last week, when he came back, he brought her something to fix it.

These are just a few examples of people who are beautiful because of the positive traits they exhibit on a daily basis: kindness, friendliness, helpfulness, integrity and honesty.

A few weeks ago, I met a woman while I was working who was very beautiful, physically. She had lovely skin, beautiful hair and stylish clothes; I couldn’t help admiring her. But then I heard her ask a co-worker to do something that clearly wasn’t the co-worker’s job. The “beautiful” Spain-Barcelona (9)woman was exercising the power she had due to her position in the office hierarchy. My admiration for her was immediately diminished because of her behavior.

My dictionary defines beauty as “The quality that gives pleasure to the mind or senses and is associated with such properties as harmony of form or color, excellence of artistry, truthfulness, and originality.” While people who possess physical beauty may give pleasure to the senses, the people I know with true beauty give pleasure to my mind. They have a harmony of spirit, and values, that transcends anything on the exterior. People often talk of inner beauty, but I would argue that it can’t exist alone; anyone with inner beauty has a beautiful outer light that shines on everyone they meet.

Did you ever balance on a see-saw when you were a child? There was always the challenge of working with the other person to find that perfect point where you were hovering in a horizontal line for a second or two, before one of you fell, a victim of weight and gravity.

The word seesaw may have come from the French words ci-ça, which mean this and that, or perhaps from the back and forth action of an actual saw. The imagery of the seesaw feels appropriate for a lot of the choices we face as we look for emotional balance, especially in how to respond to what life throws at us. We swing back and forth between options: On this side, we have pessimism; on that side, optimism. On this side, we have anger; on that side, equanimity. On this side, we have judgment and denial; on that side, acceptance. This, that, this, that.seesaw_balance

How do you choose the appropriate response in any given situation? Yesterday when I was talking about changing negative self-talk into positive self-talk to reduce stress, a listener challenged me on the concept of always looking for the silver lining. She was right to do so, because optimism isn’t always the correct response, especially if it keeps you from seeing a situation with clarity. There are certain instances where it’s better to be pessimistic because it keeps you cautious. For instance, you don’t want your airline pilot to be too much of an optimist!

Martin Seligman, in his book “Learned Optimism”, writes that optimism should be a flexible, situational choice. “You can choose to use optimism when you judge that less depression, more achievement, or better health is the issue. But you can also choose not to use it, when you judge that clear sight or owning up is called for.” He goes on to say that just because those of us who are not born optimists can learn how to be more optimistic, doesn’t mean that we lose our values or good judgment. It just means that we now have a tool we can choose to use when it is to our benefit.

Responses aren’t always either-or. If I choose not to respond in anger, that doesn’t mean I opt for complete passivity either. If we keep in mind the back and forth motion of a saw, we see there is a range of potential responses. We often find equilibrium in the middle, at the fulcrum point of the seesaw. The key is to give ourselves time to make the choice. It’s that pause, that “take-a-breath” moment that’s the hardest part for me. Instead of reacting with anger, can I ask a question that gives me a better understanding of the situation? If I discover something that I didn’t know, will that little bit of extra information keep me from making a snap judgment and help me respond thoughtfully instead of reacting harshly?

Learning to choose between responses takes time and practice. Herbert Benson and Eileen Stuart recommend this sequence:

  • Stop
  • Breathe: Release physical tension
  • Reflect: What are your automatic thoughts, irrational beliefs, or distorted thinking styles? Ask yourself these questions:
  • Is it really true?
  • Am I jumping to conclusions?
  • Is it to my advantage to think this way?
  • Am I catastrophizing?
  • Is there another way to look at the situation?
  • Can I handle it?

Thoughts, feelings and behaviors all influence each other, in a feedback loop. By questioning habitual thought patterns, we can subtly shift how we feel, and eventually, how we act. Think of it as the way you might shift weight on your end of the seesaw, to keep it balanced or to let it fall. It’s your choice.

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